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Kathy Phillips: Take the stairs

Entrepreneur at helm of Primitives by Kathy shares how she grew her business from a basement operation to employing 150

Kathy Phillips - (Photo / Submitted)

Kathy Phillips has a favorite quote: “There is no elevator to success – you have to take the stairs.”

Success takes work, and Phillips, of Lancaster, has grown her own business from a home-basement operation to one of the fastest-growing women-owned businesses in the U.S..

Phillips recently told her story to 55 women earlier this month at the York College Women’s Business Center Organization, which is geared toward providing resources for women in business.

Phillips’s business, Primitives by Kathy, is a leader in the wholesale gift industry, and its customer base is a blend of 25,000 independent retailers and 225 key accounts that include Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Hallmark and Macy’s.

Started in 1997, her business has grown to a 150-employee operation at a 150,000-square-foot distribution center in Greenfield Corporate Center.

Six of her tips for success:

1. “Take risks! Don’t regret the chance you didn’t take!” Phillips began her business when she was a newly divorced single mother with a young son and daughter.

2. “Make generosity a part of your growth strategy. I am more driven by the personal notes I receive from customers and employees than I am by the monetary wins. Knowing I am making a difference in the employee’s life or the success of a store for a shop owner is really what drives me.”

3. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone: “I had been working 10 years for my mom in an art studio we started together. I was earning a comfortable salary, but was not feeling challenged.

“That is when I experimented with my own crafts,” starting with handmade crafts at local shows. She said she would sometimes would sell $10,000 worth of items, and “that built the confidence that I had some great products that could sell in a bigger way.”

4. If you are confident in a product, move forward: Phillips began her best-known item, box signs, which now make up 30 percent of her total sales, in January 2010.

“We were so confident about this new product that we offered a ‘Guarantee Sale’ program to all the stores that purchased them. We put together a few different sizes of assortments and gave the store four months to pay their invoice and return any that did not sell. This no-risk offer to our customers showed them how confident we were in this new product.”

5. Be generous, and be authentic. “You don’t need money. Volunteer your time to a community-service function or even just doing a favor for a neighbor or friend.”

Also, “I don’t want to be the ‘ice queen’ owner in the big fancy car. I want to know their names (of employees) and their stories. If you’re authentic in all your interactions, your business culture will reflect your integrity, and the rest will follow.”

6. Focus. “I could not be a good leader majoring in the minor things. Find what you love and focus – you will be more productive.”

Overcoming recession losses

Phillips, who spoke to the group at York College’s West Campus Community Center, also had to overcome losses after the Great Recession started.

In 2008, her sales dropped and she had to lay off half of her workforce. Her company lost $1 million that year.

“I had to remain positive and persevere,” she recalled.

“This was a big turning point for PBK,” she added. “We had to react quickly to the slowing economy and … focus my efforts where my strengths were for the biggest return on my time investment, which is product development.”

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